Usually, we prefer to discover a city on our own. For us, the thought of joining a tour conjures up images of being paraded around like cattle from one touristic spot to another and isn't our ideal way to spend an afternoon. Of course there are many amazing tour guides out there—particularly locals that understand the history and culture of a place better than any guidebook could ever reveal. After a few days in Hanoi on our own, we were still thirsty to learn more and that is when stumbled across a wonderful organization called Hanoikids.
Hanoikids offers private tours with local college students, based entirely on one's interests, and all for free. The program was originally started a few years ago by students in Hanoi who wanted to share their city with visitors while improving their English speaking skills. We learned many Vietnamese students learn English growing up, but never get a chance to practice or actually speak in conversations, a necessary skill for many in a country where tourism is growing so quickly.
After a few emails asking about our interests (architecture, photography, and art) we were booked, and the next morning we met Thuy. She came armed with ideas on how we could spend our day, and within a few minutes we were off.
Our first stop took us to the edge of the city to Long Bien Bridge which connects busy Hanoi to endless fields of Banana plantations across the river, resulting in a fascinating juxtaposition. The bridge itself was built by the French colonialists many years ago and still serves as a major thoroughfare connecting Hanoi to its suburbs. Below the bridge we wandered through the banana plantations, and caught glimpses of the many farmers and workers who spend their days under the sun.
The next stop was a narrow neighborhood split in two by train tracks that run so closely between the houses you could reach out and touch a passing train from the stoop of your home. Luckily, trains only pass through the neighborhood twice a day and the locals are ushered into their homes before the train passes. The rest of the day, the tracks serve as just another sidewalk to mingle, eat and even wash clothes on.
We ended our tour at Manzi Art Space, a beautiful old colonial house converted into a coffee shop and art gallery. On the second floor we saw a small exhibition of contemporary Vietnamese artists while discussing politics and life over some coffee and tea.
Throughout the tour, Thuy provided us with tons of knowledge about her daily life of living and going to college in Hanoi. She was insightful, patient and spoke English beautifully. We asked tons of questions about Vietnam's political past and she engaged us in open and honest conversation. Thuy and Hanoikids provided us that local insight about the city we were missing, and hopefully we were good visitors to practice some English with. ◆